HOW TO CITE ...
Introduction to Basic Legal Citation (LII
by Peter W. Martin
This work first appeared in 1993. It was most
recently revised in January, 2006 to reflect
changes appearing in the eighteenth edition of
The Bluebook, published in 2005, and the second
edition of the ALWD Citation Manual, published
Being online, this guide's further revision is not
tied to a rigid publication cycle. Any user seeing
a need for clarification, correction, or other
improvement is encouraged to send the
suggested change, with explanation, to
When lawyers present legal arguments and judges write opinions, they cite authority. They lace their
representations of what the law is and how it applies to a given situation with references to statutes,
regulations, and prior appellate decisions they believe to be pertinent and supporting. They also refer to
persuasive secondary literature such as treatises, restatements, and journal articles. As a consequence,
those who would read law writing and do law writing must master a new, technical language \u2013 "legal
For many years, the authoritative reference work on "legal citation" was a manual written and published
by a small group of law reviews. Known by the color of its cover, The Bluebook was the codification of
professional norms that introduced generations of law students to "legal citation." So completely do
many academics, lawyers, and judges identify the process with that book they may refer to putting
citations in proper form as "Bluebooking" or ask a law student or graduate whether she knows how to
"Bluebook." The most recent edition of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, the eighteenth,
was published in 2005. In 2000 a competing reference appeared, one designed specifically for
instructional use. Prepared by the Association of Legal Writing Directors, the ALWD Citation Manual: A
Professional System of Citation (2d ed. 2003) has won wide acceptance in law schools.
Differences between the two are minor (and noted here). In the way that dictionaries both prescribe and reflect usage, so do these manuals. Both also reflect the environment of their creation \u2013 law schools with comprehensive print libraries and full access to the major commercial online legal information systems. The realities of professional practice in many settings, particularly at a time when digital distribution of legal materials is displacing print, lead to dialects or usages in legal citation neither manual includes.
This introduction to legal citation is focused on the forms of citation used in professional practice rather
than those used in journal publication. For that reason, it does not cover The Bluebook's distinct
typography rules for the latter. Furthermore, it aims to identify the more important points on which there
is divergence between the rules set out in the two manuals and evolving usage reflected in legal
memoranda and briefs prepared by practicing lawyers.
Like other new languages, "legal citation" is easier to read than it is to write, at least at first. The active
use of any language requires greater mastery than the receiving and understanding of it. In addition, there
is the potential confusion of dialects or other nonstandard forms of expression. As already noted, "legal
citation," like other languages, does indeed have dialects. Most are readily understandable and thus pose
little likelihood of confusion for a reader. To the beginning writer, however, they present a serious risk of
misleading and inconsistent models. As a writer of "legal citation," you must take care that you check all
references that you find in the work of others. This includes citations in court opinions. Commercial
publishers have long viewed citation as a subtle form of advertising through branding. Thus, citations in
decisions published in the multiple series of the National Reporter System of the publisher now known as
Thomson/West (from the Atlantic Reporter to the Federal Supplement) have been altered by its editors to
refer to other Thomson/West publications. In addition, several important state courts, California and New
York among them, have idiosyncratic citation norms for their own decisions. Many more cite their state's
statutes and administrative regulations without repetition of a full abbreviation of the state's name in each
reference, that being implied by context. While each of these courts is likely to accept \u2013 indeed, may
even prefer \u2013 briefs using the same citation dialect, Federal courts in the same state may not. In short,
copying and pasting citations from decisions and other references into one's own writing is almost certain
to yield inconsistent, nonstandard, and even incomplete citations.
Changes in citation norms over time also caution against relying on source material for proper citation
form. \ue002The Bluebook was revised four times in a recent fifteen year period, substantially in 1991,
controversially in 1996, and again in 2000 and 2005 (see \u00a7 7-200). Because of these changes, citations
you find in legal documents published in prior years, although they may have been totally conformed to
citation standards at the time of writing, may need reformatting to comply with current ones. In other
words, imported citations, even those imported from the most carefully edited pre-2005 journal articles,
books, or opinions, may not be in proper current form. It should also be noted that The Bluebook itself
has throughout these revisions set forth two distinct versions of citation \u2013 one for journals and an
alternative set of "practitioner rules."
Few people find a dictionary the best starting point for learning a new language. For many of the same
reasons neither The Bluebook nor the ALWD Citation Manual is a good primer. Like dictionaries, both
manuals are designed as comprehensive reference works. This introduction refers to them throughout.
But while The Bluebook and the ALWD Citation Manual aim at exhaustive coverage, these materials
seek to introduce the basics through concise statements of principles and usage linked to examples.\ue002The
aim is not to separate you from a full reference work; inevitably you will encounter unusual situations
that require "looking up" the proper "rule" or abbreviation in the pages of one manual or the other.
Instead, this introduction aims at building a basic mastery of "legal citation" as codified in those
references \u2013 a level of mastery that should enable you to do all of your legal reading and much of your
legal writing without having to reach for them. Since both The Bluebook and the ALWD Citation
Manual embrace the full range of journal writing, they furnish guidance on how to cite all manner of
references little used in practitioner writing, including, in the case of The Bluebook, a variety of foreign
law materials and historic references. By contrast, this introduction is limited to contemporary U.S. legal
As this introduction is not a substitute for a comprehensive reference, you would be wise to introduce
yourself to one or the other of the principal manuals as you proceed through this material. Read through
its table of contents and introductory material.\ue002Each topic covered here includes references to both The
Bluebook and the ALWD Citation Manual. Observing how the manual that you have chosen (or others
have chosen for you) arrays its more detailed treatment should be part of your initial exploration of each
There is no question but that striving for proper citation form will for a time seem a silly distraction.\ue002But
as is true with other languages, those who use this one carefully make negative assumptions about the
craft of those who don't.\ue002Being a simple language at its core, this one should fairly quickly become a
matter of habit and, thus, no longer a distraction.
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